It’s not about the training, it’s about the relationship

Every now and then I get a request for a board and train. Board and train is a common practice in the dog training industry where people send their dogs to a dog trainer for generally several weeks, and the trainer trains their dog while it is with them. This practice is not very common in the science-based and force free communities. From being in this industry for nearly 10 years, it is the practice most associated with scandals of “trainers” giving dogs back in poor condition, often physically and mentally. In fact several of the dogs I have worked with were for issues that came up after a board and train.

So why don’t I or others committed to the welfare of the dog offer this service (there are some welfare focused board and trains, more on that at the end)? For me, it misses the point of why I teach others.

When you start on a dog training journey with your dog, a magical thing will happen. Your relationship will change and grow. When you’re starting to train your dog, you’re learning a whole new skillset while also learning how to understand what your dog is communicating. Your dog is going through the same thing at the very same time. They are watching you, learning how to earn their rewards, learning what works, refining their interpretations of what you’re asking of them, and most importantly, having fun WITH YOU.

I could have a lot of fun with board and train clients. I love training new dogs. But the dog would spend all that time learning how I teach, learning what works for me, and bonding with me. Your relationship with your dog is the most important thing between the two of you. If your relationship isn’t strong, all the training in the world won’t matter when distractions show up. If your relationship isn’t strong, if that bond isn’t there, then you’ll never connect fully with your dog and that’s not something I wish for anyone with a dog.

Training your dog can feel overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s worth putting in the time yourself. You won’t become a pro overnight. But you will learn to work with your dog and your dog will learn to work with you and that will turn into a beautiful relationship based on trust, love and fun.

Finally, I know some people require board and train programs to help them due to personal limitations. There are some good board and train options out there and good trainers will take good care of your dog and will ensure you get all the training you need at pick up time as well. They will be open with you about where your dog will be staying, how they will work with your dog, what your dog will be doing when not actively trained and they will provide regular updates. Do your research, ask for client referrals and trust your gut if you send your dog to a board and train.

Success! You're on the list.

The truth about recall training

Everyone wants a dog with a perfect recall. The dog who listens the moment you call them and comes running towards you, leaving behind any number of distractions. Everyone wants that dog. However the truth is that most people don’t put in the work required to get that kind of recall, yet expect their dog to perform it.

If you’re feeling attacked, that’s not the point of this post. There is no judgment from me, it’s easy to get off-track with recall training and make common mistakes that will hurt your recall training. The important point I’m trying to make here is that most people think they have put in more work into recall than they actually have.

Let’s compare recall and sit. If you’ve got an adult dog, your dog can probably sit anywhere reliably. You’ve likely been working on that skill since you brought your dog home and it’s been reinforced heavily. Your dog got lots of treats for sit inside your home, then sit outside on a leash in all kinds of environments. Sit next to other dogs, sit when out on a trail, sit everywhere. You get the idea. You have trained your dog to sit anywhere and around a lot of distractions.

How many times have you trained your dog’s recall vs your dog’s sit?

See what I’m getting at? You don’t necessarily have to have repeated as many successful recall exercises as you have sit’s but you probably haven’t trained your recall even close to as many times as a sit and recall is a much more difficult skill. It’s important to acknowledge this and adjust expectations for your dog with recall.

The good news is that you can train a reliable recall without repeating your recall drills as many times as you’ve worked on sit. You just have to be smart about where you put your work in and be realistic about your dog’s recall reliability.

Recall is a tough skill. We’re asking our dogs, who spend most of their time with us on-leash or contained in some way (yard, crate, house, etc) to give up moments of freedom and come to us. We’re often asking that when they are playing with friends, chasing critters, and just being silly goofy dogs. That’s a lot of distractions and that is a LOT of environmental rewards to tempt your dog. This is why the best way to work on recall is to tailor the training to your dog.

What does that look like? It starts with figuring out what motivates them (food or play are the most common motivators). This allows you start building a foundation of reinforcement history that is successful and positive. You’re starting to teach your dog the value of coming back to you when they call.

The other important piece to identify for your dog is what are the most difficult distractions for them. This is important for two reasons. The first, is so that you can work up to the most difficult distractions rather than trying to start there. The second reason is that once you are aware of the distractions, you can make the choice to go get your dog instead of recalling them when you think they aren’t yet ready to recall well around that distraction. This is a critical point since calling our dog back to us unsuccessfully will hurt the long-term progress on the skill. It’s always better to go get your dog when they aren’t ready to handle a distraction than it is to hurt your training by trying a recall and failing.

For those who are local, there are still a couple spots (as of publishing this) in the July recall clinic. An online recall class will hopefully be posted this fall. As always, work with a trainer if you’re not making progress on this skill. You can get there!

What you can learn from my loss

Buffy, the best dog in the universe. October 21, 2012 – January 20th 2022

In the early morning of January 20th 2022, I said goodbye to my sweet angel Buffy. I held her tightly, kissed her and told her I loved her over and over again as she was put down to end her suffering. Only 5 days before I had been playing in the snow with her, snuggling her on the couch, petting her thick fur and so blissfully unaware that I was only days from saying goodbye. Buffy died of cancer, hemangiosarcoma, often called the Silent Killer because it is often undetectable until end of life.

Losing her so suddenly is still something I’m processing and frankly struggling with. Grief is difficult in the best of circumstances but suddenly losing a loved one leaves you feeling like someone has ripped out a part of your heart and turned your entire life upside down. Even though I have so much to process and much more to write about Buffy and the incredible life she lived, I wanted to share some important takeaways for those of you who haven’t yet had to say goodbye. 

“Spoil” your dog. When you lose your four-legged family member, you won’t regret giving them too many treats, buying them too many nice beds, sharing your human food, letting them get muddy and making a mess. Instead, you’ll be wishing you could give them one more treat. You’ll wish you let them run around in the mud one more time. You’ll feel like you should have bought them even more luxury pet bets or ordered them their own pizza. There is not a single thing I gave her that made her happy that I wish I hadn’t. I just wish I could have kept doing those things. If I’d been able to have even one more day with Buffy, I would have filled it with all her favourite things from pizza, duck, mud pools, more fetch, more snuggles in bed, more of everything she loved. 

Make the positive changes now. You don’t know how much time you have with your dog. You just don’t. There are no guarantees and that means it is time now to give them the best life you can. If you’ve been debating ditching a particular training tool, or trying to integrate more enrichment, more off-leash time, etc, just do it now. Give your dog the best life possible. Give them the opportunity to be themselves as fully as possible. You will not regret making your dog’s life better but you could regret never getting the chance to try to. 

Buffy was such a perfect dog. I often forgot how much of a hard time I had with her in the first several years of her life. She didn’t come to me the perfect sassy but happy to please dog she had been after age three. In fact, she was a dog that a lot of people would have used punishment and aversive tools on. As a puppy, she was non-stop energy that required a lot of patience, planning and compassion to handle. More than once she escaped her pen and had the best day of her life tearing apart my home. She destroyed the bottom of her crate and dug into the carpet of my last rental in Ottawa. She ate my sister’s shoes when I moved in with her and ripped one of her young trees out of the ground. I didn’t teach her to loose leash walk until she was three (it just wasn’t a priority for me) so she pulled HARD on walks. Even with all of that, I never used punishments or aversives. In fact, Buffy was who she was because I took the time to teach her how to behave, to motivate her, to harness that energy for fun instead of chaos. I am grateful every single day I never used punishment tools or methods on her. She was able to shine so bright because her spirit was never dimmed by uncertainty, anxiety, or fear. Today I have no regrets that I gave her the best life she could have ever had. 

Being in the darkness of grief has actually provided me with crystal clear clarity on what is most important in life, at least for me. Spending time with the ones you love. That’s it. All I wish for right now is more time with Buffy. At the end, when we lose a soul we love, all we will want is more time with them. So spend that time with them now. Nothing else matters as much. Absolutely nothing. Enjoy the time you have because you never know when it will end. 

Help me honour Buffy’s life by celebrating life with your dog. Share the pizza, let them roll in mud, throw the ball a couple extra times, buy them a new toy. Live together right now. #LiveLikeBuffy

“We are here to love each other. That’s why you are alive. That is what life is for.”

– Maya Angelou

Why saying “no” is a bad idea

One thing I try to teach all of my clients is that saying “no” is a bad idea. As people, most of whom understand what “no” means, using that word comes naturally. We utilize it beyond a simple rejection or refusal to consult, we also use “no” to mean “stop” or “don’t do that”.

“No”, put simply, is a word with multiple meanings and given that, how can we expect our dogs to understand what it means? (If you don’t have time to read the details, scroll below for the too-long-didn’t-read section)

One thing that will set back training with your dog is a lack of clear communication. When we teach a dog a new skill, we have to try and be as clear as possible. Generally, that means we need to start by showing our dog what we want (we do that with luring in most cases), then we reinforce that behaviour and fade out the lure, and once our dog understands what we want them to do, we add the verbal cue in so that we can clearly communicate by words alone with our dog.

Many (probably most) dog guardians will actually start using verbal cues right away while they are luring and a lot of them will have success, that’s because our dogs are extremely good at putting things together even if we don’t communicate it perfectly. But often, that lack of clarity does matter and my clients will joyfully say “Hey! I finally got the down on verbal only, look!” and proceed to have the dog sit there and look at them confused while they stand perfectly still and don’t respond to “Down”. It’s not that the dog is stubborn, it’s that they are confused. In most cases, their guardian has introduced the verbal cue while still using body language cues without realizing (hand signals, bending over, etc).

So if some dogs learn well even if we aren’t great communicators, can’t we use “No” with those dogs?

The answer is: No. “Down”, “Sit”, “Stay” etc all have clear meanings to our dogs. We expand their meanings as we take those skills from the living room to the yard, to the park, etc. But they all mean a specific skill. Instead, when we use “No” our dog doesn’t know what to do. We might be saying “No” to them jumping up on us. We might be saying “No” to them pulling, or even jumping up on the counters, etc. Those are all different behaviours for our dogs. We just are not consistent enough with what “no” means.

Most of you are probably using “No” to get your dog to stop doing specific behaviours and potentially as a no-reward-marker (a word you use to tell your dog during training that they did not do the desired skill). So how can you teach your dog how to behave if you can’t tell them what is bad?

Well, put simply, you don’t need to tell them they did something wrong. Over 5 years ago I decided to experiment with my dogs and stop using my no-reward-marker (oops). I stopped cold turkey and what did I find? No significant negative change in behaviour from my dogs, in fact, eliminating that word from my vocabulary resulted in my dogs showing less frustration in training and also increased my skills in setting them up for success. Things actually improved!

So if your dog is doing something wrong, what can you do? Use a positive interrupter. A positive interrupter is something that you say to interrupt your dog’s behaviour. What makes it positive? Your dog gets a reward (food or praise) for listening. You might be asking “Won’t I be rewarding them for doing the bad thing?”. The answer is: No. The positive interrupter can be used when you are interrupting a “bad” behaviour but you’re going to reward your dog coming to you, not the “bad” behaviour. Pro tip: If this is a repeat unwanted behaviour, it’s time to look at how you could set up the environment to eliminate this behaviour from happening in the first place or teach an incompatible behaviour.

For me, the positive interrupter is typically kissing sounds because it works with most dogs. I follow that sound with an excited “yes!” the moment they come towards me.

If you stop saying no and other no-reward-markers, you won’t stop progressing on your training, instead, you’ll learn how to become a better communicator with your dog.


  • No is a word used for too many meanings in human language and therefore is confusing to your dog.
  • No-reward-markers (sometimes a no, or oops, etc) are not required to advance training, in fact eliminating them may lead to less frustration and more errorlesslearning.
  • Instead of using “no”, try to use a positive interrupter.
  • A positive interrupter is something you say to get your dog to stop a behaviour but it comes with a positive consequence.
  • It won’t reward bad behaviour, instead you’ll be rewarding your dog coming back to you.
  • My sequence is 1. Dog is doing unwanted behaviour. 2. I say the positive interrupter. 3. Dog comes towards me. I say “yes!”. 4. Once dog reaches me, I reward with food (or praise if no food is nearby).
  • If unwanted behaviours keep repeating themselves, look at how you can modify the environment to keep it from occurring in the first place or teach your dog an incompatible behaviour.

Have you tried doing …nothing?

There is an immense pressure in society to have a perfect dog. It seems that, for at least a part of society, if your dog doesn’t listen to your every instruction, you’re not a good dog guardian.

It’s pretty wild that complete obedience is the goal when co-habitating and sharing a relationship with another species.

Nevertheless, the pressure is there. So when our dogs do something that we think they shouldn’t, like an alert bark, chasing squirrels, digging, sniffing something for 5 minutes while on walk, we feel like “bad guardians”. Like we don’t have control over the animal we’re supposed to “control”.

Here is the thing: Dogs aren’t robots. They’re dogs. They do dog things. Many of those dog things are behaviours we label as nuisance or weird, but they’re totally normal for a DOG.

I get asked a LOT by clients on how to stop their dog from barking, how to stop them from digging, how to stop them from having zoomies etc. There are times when dog behaviours can be a problem. Non-stop barking is a problem. Digging up flower beds everywhere, is a problem. Zoomies into the road, is a problem. But 90% of the time, these behaviours are not a problem.

When your dog likes to dig in one corner of the yard, have you ever considered letting them have that corner?

When your dog alert barks a couple times to tell you someone is arriving, they’re doing what they were bred to do in most cases. Ever tried letting them do the thing they were bred to do?

If your dog gets the zoomies in your yard because they are so happy, let them.

Sometimes the best option is to do nothing at all and to just let your dog be a dog. Why is this the best option? First, it’s easy and won’t be adding a lot to your training list, but most importantly, in most cases, your dog is fulfilling a need they have. If we don’t let them live like dogs, then what is the point?

Now, some behaviours are a problem and you should reach out to a certified and humane dog trainer. Most of the time, we can find an alternative which allows your dog to meet their needs in a safe way.

But when your dog does something that triggers your anxiety because you feel like some stranger might judge you, ask yourself if it really matters? Is this behaviour dangerous? Is it harmful to anyone or your dog? If it’s not, and it’s harmless (like spending 5 minutes sniffing a hydrant), then I propose you do nothing.

Let your dog be a dog.

No, your dog is not just being dramatic

There has been a disappointing, even quite disturbing trend, on social media lately. Accounts have been posting videos of dogs in distress, as “funny” videos of dogs just “being dramatic”.

The dogs in all cases are not in life threatening situations. In fact they are often in very normal situations such as having their nails clipped or being groomed. So the posters just assume that their dogs are “being dramatic”. Many of the dogs are also huskies and the posters will often just say “huskies are just dramatic” to justify their videos.

Part of me understands why some people will believe their dogs are just dramatic. How is it not dramatic for a dog to have such a wild display of fearful behaviour at something as benign as having their nails clipped? After all, once the procedure is done, the dog goes back to normal. That’s just drama right?

No. It’s not drama. It’s a massive emotional reaction to something that we know is not life threatening, but the dogs do not necessarily know that. The dogs are uncomfortable, scared and often in a total panic. They are crying out for help, not for entertainment.

Dogs have many fears and phobias of things we would think of as posing no threat. A great deal of the work I do with clients is on separation anxiety. Is the dog’s life threatened when we leave them? No. Do dogs with separation anxiety act like it is? Yes. Are they just “being dramatic”? No. They have a fear of being alone and they need compassion and a measured and carefully executed approach to allow them to get past their fear.

The dogs in these videos are the same. They are scared and panicked and should be approached with compassion and empathy, not laughter. Dogs can be taught that grooming is safe or that having their nails done is nothing to worry about. Dog trainers help their clients achieve these goals all of the time.

If you have one of these dogs and you’re wondering what to do because your dog needs the procedure that terrifies them? First, see if there are alternatives such as teaching your dog to use a scratch board for nail trims. If there aren’t and the procedure is absolutely necessary, then speak to your veterinarian about medical options which could help your dog better tolerate the procedure.

As for huskies, they may be seen as a more “dramatic” breed because they vocalize more (I know, I’ve got a husky mix who easily falls into this category) but that doesn’t mean that when they are howling and essentially screaming for help, that they do not feel like they are in distress.

Lastly, if you had a terrible phobia of spiders, or snakes, and someone locked you in a room with hundreds of non-venomous species and you lost it, how would you feel if someone just labelled you as “dramatic” when you freaked out. Fears and phobias are just as real for dogs as they are for humans.

Be a leader, not the alpha

The alpha myth still runs rampant in the k9 world. So if it comes to you as a surprise that “alpha” is a myth, you’re far from alone! The alpha myth, which says that dogs have similar social structure to wolves and that wolf packs operate with one alpha which must remain dominant over the others, is a lie. If you want to read more about this, then I recommend this article.

So where does that leave us guardians? What is our role? We have the role of leader. We’re essentially the team leader in our team of 2. How is this different than being an alpha? Well, let’s go over what it means to be a good leader.

A good leader provides their team members with opportunities to learn and doesn’t expect them to know what to do without instruction. Our dogs don’t come with the knowledge of how this human world works and what is okay and what’s not. It’s critical that we, as leaders, give them the training and opportunities they need to learn and to learn fairly. Good leaders ensure their team members aren’t overwhelmed and set up to fail. They set them up for success! That’s what we have to do with our dogs. If our dog’s aren’t getting something, or they’re not learning, it’s on us, not them.

A good leader takes responsibility. When you’re in charge, you’re in charge, and that means you are responsible for your team members. This doesn’t mean you need to discipline your team members, but it means that when someone screws up, you’re there to set them up to succeed next time, not to yell at them and set them up to fail again. Good leaders know that they are responsible for setting the environment and providing their team members with what they need to be successful. For dogs, that could mean not exposing them to stressful situations, or even hiring a certified trainer when you’re in over your head.

A good leader is a clear communicator. Good leaders make sure that they figure out the best way to communicate to their individual team members. With dogs, this means ensuring that we are communicating clearly. That means communicating our house rules, our outdoor rules, and letting our dogs know when we’ve got this and they can stand down. It means setting them up for errorless learning as much as possible (errorless learning is really synonymous with clear communication). It also means we don’t change the rules on them partway through and then get angry.

A good leader advocates for their team. Good leaders will advocate on behalf of their team members. For dogs, that can be in the form of asking people not to interact with them when they aren’t comfortable. It could be asking the other dog guardian to leash their dog up so that they feel safe. It could be asking another pet professional not to continue putting your dog in a stressful situation. Your dog doesn’t have a human voice and that means, as the leader, you have to be their voice.

A good leader is not: someone who reaches for punishment, someone who doesn’t care how each team member is doing, someone who insists on punishing or correcting unwanted behaviour, someone who makes a “phsshht!” sound and physically touches a dog, some who needs to be seen as “the boss”, someone who thinks they should be respected more than they respect their team members, someone who sets someone up to fail.

Strive to be the kind of leader that you’ve seen others thrive under. Someone who is fair, compassionate, recognizes when others are struggling and commits to helping them. Someone who doesn’t bring their ego into the room. Someone who knows that no one wins unless everyone wins. Someone who cares.

Never be the alpha, instead, be a good leader.

Emergency kits for backcountry k9’s

Mike and Buffy taking in the views from the alpine

I have been adventuring in the backcountry with my dogs for many years. From the moment I had Cody we were hitting the trails in the parks near Ottawa. Although we spent a lot of time on those trails, it was never a remote enough for me to bring around emergency supplies and I just thought if something happened, I would figure it out.

Fast forward a couple years and we found ourselves in the backcountry in Cape Scott Park at the northern tip of Vancouver Island. My sister and I both had our dogs with us (Buffy around yet so I just had Cody) and I had suggested what looked like a short cut to get around the beach as the tide was coming in. The trail we were on was rugged and overgrown with fallen trees and a rope to safely descend because of the steepness. I remember thinking “I’m not equipped to handle this if Cody get hurts”. Luckily, that didn’t happen and his agility impressed me once again. But the thought stuck with me.

Now, living in the mountains and adventuring with backcountry hikes, scrambles, backcountry skiing and days at the crag, I’ve learned which supplies to bring with me to keep my dogs safe and to be ready to respond if I need to. It’s been almost 6 years of refining my kit and figuring out what is necessary to always have on me when I go out with them.

First aid supplies for K9s

These items are not in any way exhaustive of what an emergency kit should be, or me offering you any advice on how to deal with k9 emergencies, every situation is unique and common sense should always be used.  If you aren’t comfortable providing first aid for your pooch, there are lots of courses available to help change that, including online Pet First Aid.

Here is what I typically have on me:

  • Standard First Aid Supplies – These are the supplies I can use for k9’s or humans. My kit includes triangular bandages, gauze, scissors, tweezers, alcohol swabs, cotton swaps, q-tips, nitrile gloves, and gauze pads of various sizes.
  • Qwikstop – This is a no brainer. It can be used on both k9’s and humans but you’re more likely to need it for your pooch.
  • Lineman’s Pliers – If you don’t have this on a  multi-tool with you, then pack a separate one, especially for overnight trips. Porcupines are an unfortunate part of the backcountry and these can help you with a lot of situations but especially porcupine quills. If you are more than a day from civilization or depending on the location, you might have to remove these yourself. To do that you’re likely to need help from someone holding and calming your pooch. As a minimum, you can use these pliers to cut the quills so at least your dog won’t be hurting every two seconds by rubbing them against something. Always a good idea to see the vet after a porcupine encounter.
  • Benadryl – I always have some of this in my kit. Benadryl is safe to take for dogs and it will help you if your furry pal gets into something they shouldn’t or, if you have a dog like Buffy, and your dog gets a record amount of mosquito bites. Make sure to speak to your veterinarian before you use Benadryl to make sure it’s appropriate for your dog and you know the proper dose.
  • Pepto Bismol – This isn’t something I always carry, but it’s worth considering if you’re heading into the backcountry on a multi-day trek. Pepto can help with nausea and diarrhea for your pooch. But be careful of which product you buy, not all the Pepto Bismol products are safe for dogs. Make sure to speak to your veterinarian before you use Pepto Bismol to make sure it’s appropriate for your dog and you know the proper dose.
  • Self-adhesive Bandage Wrap – Worth its weight in gold, this is my most often used item in my kit along with some gauze. It’s worth carrying a full roll of this stuff. If your dog gets some paw pad injuries, wrapping it with some gauze and this bandage can buy your dog a little comfort on the way out. I’ve used this on multiple occasions with my dogs.
  • Sam Splint – This is something I carry for both my dogs and my human friends. Sam Splints are light and handy to have around. Although if your dog does break a bone in their leg, you might have a pretty hard time splinting it (mainly depending on their ability to tolerate you adding to their pain momentarily), but it’s good to have handy if you need it.
  • Pain Killers – If you’re headed onto a big trek, it’s worth a vet visit to pick up some k9 pain killers in case something goes down. Just like us, it’s nice to have something to numb the pain a bit on the way out of the backcountry after the shit hits the fan. You must speak to your veterinarian and use pain killers prescribed for your dog, over the counter pain killers are not appropriate for your dog.
  • Pedialyte 50/50 – This is a hydration solution that can be used for dogs and people. Your dog may encounter something in the backcountry which causes vomiting, the pedialyte can help you maintain your dog’s hydration until you get them to the vet. Dogs can go days without food if they need to, but like us they are susceptible to dehydration.
  • A lightweight tarp – This way seem odd to bring but this is one of the most useful tools for backcountry treks. Not only is to good to set up if you need to get out of the sun or rain, but you can use this to carry your injured dog out if it comes to that. There are some dog-sling products out there where it is a specifically designed piece of equipment to carry out your dog and it certainly is easier to manage than using a tarp for this, however if you’re doing a long trek, you might be more inclined to carry something that you can use daily as well.
  • Field Guide to Dog First Aid by Rancy Acker, DVM – This small book comes along on my bigger backcountry treks. It’s a handy guide that covers all kinds of situations you may find yourself in and includes information on how to stabilize your dog for specific injuries and when you need to get out as fast as possible and to the vet. For me, it’s worth the extra grams in weight to have this information handy if I need it.

The items mentioned above might not help your dog in a very serious situation, but they will come in handy for a lot of more minor injuries they may sustain (and are also more likely to sustain). I’m not a veterinarian so I can’t provide you with advice on what to do if your dog is very seriously injured, the best advice I can offer is keeping your dogs on leash when you’re unsure of the terrain and what could be around so that you don’t get into that situation in the first place. A lot of backcountry injuries happen to dogs that are off-leash. Dogs will chase prey off of cliffs, I’ve seen it. So don’t risk it if you are in unfamiliar terrain and never ever break the leash laws in parks. You risk ruining it for the rest of us.

If there are items you never hit the trail without, let me know! I’m always looking to improve my kit!

Adventuring with senior dogs

Cody and Buffy enjoying some summit views.

My dogs are 8 and 11 years old. I can’t believe I just typed that. It feels like not very long ago they were 2 and 5 years old. Taking care of senior dogs is different. I realized a couple years ago, as my oldest dog Cody officially became a senior, that I had to make some changes.

I love adventuring with my dogs but I couldn’t treat him like a little 4×4 machine that could take anything on without consequence. Neither of my dogs are small, Cody weighs usually between 55-60 lbs and Buffy weighs 65-70lbs. Larger dogs not only age faster but also tend to have more mobility issues as they age. Ignoring these facts wasn’t going to set me up to keep them in tip top shape. So I made some changes.


Enter the world of senior dogs and enter the world of supplements. Glucosamine, Chondroitin, MSM, omega oil, salmon oil…the list goes on and on. It can be very challenging to navigate supplements and I recommend speaking to your veterinarian about which supplement may be beneficial to your senior dog. I am in no way a supplement expert but I will say that when I started to notice Cody was sore after big days out, we started adding supplements to his food and I tried several. I tried oils, glucosamine chews, and powders. I honestly did not see much of a difference until I tried Tri-Acta. A sport dog trainer recommended it to me and I have to say, I see significantly less soreness in Cody after big days. I even started giving it to Buffy in a preventative way a couple of years ago. Make sure to consult your veterinarian, but supplements could potentially help your senior adventure dog.


Supplements are not the only important thing you want to get right, the food you feed your dog is also equally important. Firstly, I am not a canine nutritionist by any means, but the information I am sharing has come from conversations with veterinarians. You should speak with a certified k9 nutritionist or your veterinarian if you have any questions about nutrition. If your senior is not on a senior diet, I would reconsider it. The joint support in senior diets is important, but so is the lower calorie content. It’s important to keep your senior at a healthy weight. If your dog is overweight, that is more pressure on bones and that can lead to arthritis in the senior years. Keeping them trim and fit will keep them mobile and may help with arthritis. If you are not sure if your dog is overweight, a quick stop at a vet should help you. But in general, ribs should be just slightly visible or easy to feel for dogs with thick fur and hips should be defined from the top. 


Fitness is obviously important for any adventure dog and as they age, you shouldn’t assume they can do the big hike they did years ago. But, I’m going to assume your dog is fairly fit, or used to the activities you already do together. If you’re getting into adventuring with a senior dog, you’ll want to build slowly so that they have a chance to adapt. What I’m mostly going to address here is additional I fitness training. Working on improving the overall muscle strength, especially for stabilizing muscles. So how do you work on that? Well first, you’ll need some props for your dog to use. An aerobic step, balance board, small mat, even a rolled up towel can work. The goal is to get your dog to step up onto a higher surface. This may seem like nothing, but it actually shifts the weight and works their muscles. So work on teaching this skill. You can lure your dog to start, or shape the behaviour by saying “yes” or clicking a clicker every time they start to interact with the object. Be sure to use lots of rewards. Your dog will LOVE his fitness training. Once you have mastered getting both front paws up, start to work on the back paws, this one is trickier for most dogs. You can even offer variations like one paw up, or do two paws but on a wobbly surface. Make it fun, change things up, and start small. Just a couple reps to start and work your way up. Your dog can’t tell you if they are sore, so start small. 

K9 Physiotherapy

One of the best things I did for my senior dogs was to see a k9 physiotherapist prior to a problem arising. I didn’t want to wait for injuries to appear and I was looking to see if they were both still in the good shape I was hoping for. I found out so much valuable information. Both my dogs had areas where they were tight and some areas where they were weak. I got exercises to practice to help them get over these weaknesses and I was given some great day-to-day advice to help prevent more injuries, including no more jumping out of the car. They make it look easy, but it’s hard on their bodies, especially their front limbs and neck. I can’t recommend this enough. I was lucky at the time and lived in Calgary, so accessing the Canine Fitness Centre was easy. I hope you can find some help close by.

Last words

Adventuring with senior dogs is about balance. It’s a balance between keeping them active but not over doing it. I learned that a couple summers ago when I pushed Cody very hard on what was a much more challenging scramble than expected. He limped the last km to the car and I realized he can’t do it all anymore. Keep adventuring with your seniors, but keep in mind they might go harder than they should, and prevention goes a very long way. I know I plan to keep getting out there with my dogs as long as possible.,

Hiking with reactive dogs

Cody, taking in the views on a scramble in the Canadian rockies

I love my dogs, I love mountains, and I especially love both together. I love taking my pooches on all kinds of outdoor adventures because they love it just as much as I do. I can see a switch go off in my dogs when we hit the trails; they are engaged, sniffing, exploring, stomping over everything, rubbing themselves on all kinds of surfaces (…sometimes poop) and just being dogs.

My dogs both have very different personalities. Buffy is a happy go lucky dog. She is what people think of when they think of friendly dogs. She happily greets everyone she meets, she loves getting in for petting, and will play fetch with anyone. Cody has a very different personality. I rescued Cody when he was roughly 6-8 months old. He had not been properly socialized and the world terrified him. We worked hard on changing that and today he can go for a walk on a busy city street and usually warms up to strangers within minutes. But he’s also dog reactive and since he got badly bit by a dog last year, his reactivity has been worse than it was prior to that incident (we’re actively working on this, but as reactive dog owners, this is a process).

What is it like to hike with a reactive dog? 

When I go hiking with my dogs, I bring my regular safety supplies, water, snacks and poop bags for the dogs. But the most important tool I bring is a leash. My dogs are rarely unleashed while hiking and this isn’t because they don’t have a good recall (they do). This is for 3 main reasons: 1) if I’m on a busy trail I know I might run into people with other reactive dogs or people that just don’t like dogs and I want to respect that, 2) that’s generally the rules for the maintained trails and parks I visit, and 3) wildlife. For obvious reasons dogs and wildlife don’t mix.

What my leashes do not help with, are encounters with off leash dogs. Let me describe what happens to me on a very regular basis as I try to hike and enjoy the outdoors with my dogs on leash (in a leash-required area). I’m heading down a hiking trail, or up, usually in the woods, and suddenly I see a dog standing on the trail ahead. Often ahead of its owner. It stops and freezes and stares down my dogs. My stress rises immediately, will this dog be friendly? Will the owner recall it? Will the owner be able to recall it? I notice the reaction in my dogs as well. They are trying to read the dog ahead and see if it is a threat. Buffy’s body language usually relaxes quickly, but Cody’s gets stiffer. He is scared. He knows he is leashed and trapped. He can’t escape and so he knows he might have to “get them before they get me”. I usually start to tell the other dog to stay away. Then the owner appears and usually scrambles to come grab their dog and apologizes. But often they shout “it’s ok! My dog is friendly!”. I can’t tell you how much that phrase irks me. Just because your dog is friendly, does not mean it should come trampling over to my dogs. Leash reactivity (when a dog is reactive on leash due to being unable to escape) is very common and not an issue that only reactive dogs deal with. So even if your dog is friendly, them trotting over to a dog who is leashed is just plain unfair to the leashed dog. The leashed dog you encounter with your off leash dog may be nervous, uncomfortable, even terrified of your friendly dog. 

Reactive dogs need exercise and they need the outdoors as much as other dogs. It’s important to share the space and obey the rules of the outdoors so that we don’t lose access to these spaces with our dogs. There are already a lot of parks which have started banning dogs, I don’t want that trend to continue. We should all just adventure responsibly with our best friends. 

Tips for hiking with a reactive dog

So how do you hike with a reactive dog successfully? Firstly, if your dog is fairly reactive – when you see another dog your dog pretty much always lunges at the end of their leash and barks – then, if you have access to a positive reinforcement science based dog trainer, it is worth every penny to invest in some reactive training. Some training facilities have reactive specific classes where dogs can work in an environment which puts their comfort first and foremost. Those classes will teach you the skills that you need to help your dog deal with their fears. If you don’t have a facility nearby that offers reactive classes, then it’s worth hiring a trainer for some private sessions. This can even be done virtually!

Beyond private training or classes, the best thing you can do is bring high value treats with you to help you re-direct your dog (once they spot that dog, treats go in front of the nose and re-direct them off to the side of the trail with you). A common misconception is that if you give treats to a dog that is reacting, you will reward his reactivity. This is wrong. Reactivity is caused by strong emotions of fear or uncertainty (sometimes frustration) and food can help change your dogs emotions. It will not reward the reactivity.  A good harness to help you control your dog will also be easier on you and your dog (if they are lunging at the end of the leash on a collar, it puts a lot of pressure onto their necks – this is not good for them). It is absolutely paramount that you feel in control of your dog when it is leashed, so if this is something you are struggling with by only using a collar, a front clip harness should help. Avoid temptation to reach for tools like a choke collar or prong collar. If you are struggling to find something that works for your dog, reach out to me and I can offer suggestions.

Once you have redirected off to the side of the trail, an “emergency scatter” is a great tool in that moment. Grab a handful of treats and throw them to the ground so they scatter. You should be at a distance (when possible) where your dog can focus on finding the treats and not the dog passing by. If you’ve been working with a trainer and are practising a look-at-that protocol, the side of the trail could be a good spot to practice that if you think you will be successful. Otherwise, scatter those treats!

I also recommend teaching a directional change cue. I use “this way” with my dogs and it cues them that we’re changing direction immediately and they have to look at me to see where we are going. To teach this, practice at home, somewhere without triggers, and have high value treats and a leash. Walk around with your dog and then say “this way” and immediately put a treat to their nose and lure them into a directional change with you. Keep practising this until your dog starts to get excited when you say “this way” or whatever you called the cue (fun alternative cues for this skill include “abort!” “oh shit!” or “nope!”). Eventually you won’t need the lure, but for the first few times, use that lure to get them super excited to follow you.

Finally, what do you do if an off-leash dog runs up to you and the owners are nowhere to be seen? Throw dog treats/food as far as you can behind them and try to get out of there while yelling for their owners to get their dog. Yes, that dog could have a food allergy, but if their guardians were worried about that, they wouldn’t let them hike ahead of them in an on-leash area (also presumably busy area). This is the safest option you have.

Lastly, make sure you and your dog have fun. Hiking should be a fun activity for both of you and if you are too stressed or your dog is too stressed, you should definitely get some training so that you can both be comfortable heading out there. Happy hiking!